Backing Talent, Not Track Records

Family-office cowboys have new competition in niche seed investing: A $3 billion hospital fund.

The $3 billion Hartford HealthCare fund has seeded a series of niche plays at big-name asset management firms, CIO has learned, often as client #1 for untested teams. 

A little over a year ago, Hartford conducted a traditional search—via consultant and requests for proposals—for a liquid natural resources vehicle, and nothing off-the-shelf appealed. The end result? Hartford wrote a $40 million check to a fund that didn’t yet exist: A relatively low-oil commodities blend out of establishment firm Cohen & Steers. 

“If the right product doesn’t exist, we’ve got no qualms about backing the teams to actually deliver it.”“Everybody does natural resources by a cap-weighting, which makes most funds about 60% oil-based,” CIO David Holmgren said in an interview. “In my view, don’t take the benchmark as given. It’s a starting point, nothing more and nothing less.” 

Cohen & Steers risk-balanced agriculture, metals, oil, and other commodities as its starting point, which “fundamentally aligned” with Hartford’s goals. The hospital endowment has since upped its total seed investment to $70 million, as Cohen & Steers prepares the year-old strategy for fundraising primetime. 

The extra legwork and risk relative to off-the-shelf investing didn’t phase Holmgren. 

“We’ve felt it far more prudent, reliable, and successful to spend time making sure we’ve invested in the right people, whose investment beliefs align with how we think,” he explained. “And if the right product doesn’t exist, we’ve got no qualms about backing the teams to actually deliver it.” 

A consumer-brand licensing play—“probably the weirdest investment in the portfolio,” according to Holmgren—came next. Once again, this untested strategy and team worked under the banner of a brand-name asset manager: Neuberger Berman. 

Hartford committed $18 million last summer to Marquee Brands, then a six-month-old unit seeking to “identify, acquire, and manage high quality brands” across “all consumer segments,” according to Neuberger. Connecticut’s main medical center now owns stakes in clothier Ben Sherman and a luxury Italian stiletto brand, via Marquee acquisitions. 

Three more early-stage opportunistic allocations have followed, all benefiting from the institutional-quality infrastructure of name-brand firms. 

A litigation-finance vehicle from Halcyon Capital Management (total assets: $10 billion) earned $12 million from Hartford in January. 

Holmgren’s office became the first investor in State Street Global Advisors’ global macro hedge fund roughly six months ago. 

A Japanese equity startup out of Wellington took Hartford’s largest and latest seed investment at $50 million. While stressing that the initial months’ performance mean nothing in the long term, Holmgren noted that the fund was off to an extremely profitable start. 

“So much of the institutional investment industry is designed around pursuing product continuation,” he said. “It’s not set up to seed talent. For us, at our size, this is a whole new strategy to win. It requires due diligence and evaluation based on merits and theses, not buckets and track-record comparables. But that’s what investing actually is, right?” 

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